Jan. 6, 2006

Serving Time

by Charles Simic

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Serving Time" by Charles Simic from The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late & New Poems. © Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Serving Time

Another dreary day in time's invisible
Penitentiary, making license plates
With lots of zeros, walking lockstep counter-
Clockwise in the exercise yard or watching
The lights dim when some poor fellow,
Who could as well be me, gets fried.

Here on death row, I read a lot of books.
First it was law, as you'd expect.
Then came history, ancient and modern.
Finally philosophy—all that being and nothingness stuff.
The more I read, the less I understand.
Still, other inmates call me professor.

Did I mention that we had no guards?
It's a closed book who locks
And unlocks the cell doors for us.
Even the executions we carry out
By ourselves, attaching the wires,
Playing warden, playing chaplain

All because a little voice in our head
Whispers something about our last appeal
Being denied by God himself.
The others hear nothing, of course,
But that, typically, you may as well face it,
Is how time runs things around here.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist, critic and photographer Wright Morris, born in Central City, Nebraska (1910), who is the author of eighteen novels, several collections of short stories, books of criticism and several memoirs. His novel, Plains Song, won the 1981 American Book Award for Fiction. He lived in California for many years and once said, "I am not a regional writer, but the characteristics of this region have conditioned what I see, what I look for, and what I find in the world to write about."

It's the birthday of journalist, poet, novelist and biographer Carl Sandburg, born in Galesburg, Illinois (1878). As a hobo he collected and learned a number of folk songs and published them in a collection called The American Songbag (1927).

Eventually, he attended college and a professor, Phillip Green Wright, was the first to publish a book of Sandburg's verse, In Reckless Ecstasy, in 1904. He went on publishing poems along with articles about the labor movement but he didn't have any real financial success until a publisher suggested that he write a biography of Abraham Lincoln. His Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, published in 1926, was Sandburg's first bestseller. He moved to a new home and devoted the next several years to completing four additional volumes, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, for which he won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize.

His Complete Poems won him his second Pulitzer Prize in 1951.

Carl Sandburg said, "[Poetry is] the successful synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits."

It's the birthday of poet Khalil Gibran, born in Bechari (Bsharri), Lebanon (1883). He wrote The Prophet (1923), and when he died, Gibran left all the royalties of his books to his native village in Lebanon.

It's the birthday of author and philosopher Alan Watts, born in Chislehurst, England (1915). He was a writer-philosopher who earned a reputation as the foremost interpreter of Eastern philosophy for the West.

It's the birthday of novelist and editor E.L. (Edward Lawrence) Doctorow, born in New York City (1931). He grew up in the Bronx where his father had a radio, record and musical instrument store in Manhattan which folded during the Depression. He later sold television sets and stereo equipment.

After high school Doctorow went to Kenyon College in Ohio to study poetry with the poet and teacher John Crowe Ransom. He said of Kenyon College, "There were lots of poets on campus, poetry was what we did at Kenyon, the way at Ohio State they played football."

After college Doctorow earned his living as an "expert reader" for film and television production companies in New York. He read a book a day, seven days a week, and writing synopses of each one for his boss. Doctorow eventually moved on to a job at a publishing house where he helped edit books by writers such as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. He sometimes worked twenty hours a day but somehow he still found time to work on his own writing. He published more novels, including The Book of Daniel (1971) about the fictional son of the Rosenbergs which won the National Book Award, but he still hadn't had any great literary success.

Doctorow sat around for a year trying to come up with an idea for his next novel. He said, "I wrote endless pages that didn't take me anywhere. I got so desperate that I started to write about the wall that I face when I write. As it happened, that was the wall in my study in New Rochelle, N.Y. That house was built in 1906. So I started to think about the house and that street and what it must have looked like in 1906."

Not sure if he had a story or not, Doctorow began going through history books to learn about what was happening in New York in 1906. He went through books of photographs to see what the streets looked like and the clothes people wore. He purposely didn't try to look for any particular story but what emerged was his novel Ragtime (1975) which he later said was the easiest book he ever wrote. Set in the decade prior to World War I it includes characters like William Howard Taft, J.P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini. It went on to become a huge bestseller and it was made into a movie.

Doctorow's other novels include Billy Bathgate (1989) and The March (2005).

He also said, "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

And, "Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show